Recent Acquisitions: Gay Icon, Performer, and "Empress" José Sarria

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Cultural institutions in San Francisco continually search for new acquisitions. Alexis Coe brings you the most important, often wondrous, sometimes bizarre, and occasionally downright vexing finds every other Friday.

San Francisco native José Sarria is a celebrated performer, advocate, and was the first known openly gay person to campaign for elected office in 1961. When the 90-year-old Sarria began to seriously consider the fate of his personal archives, it was no easy task. The Smithsonian expressed interest, but only wanted his correspondence, and Sarria knew that the public and researchers would best benefit from a complete collection at one institution.

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The GLBT Historical Society, the first of its kind in the United States, had honored his intentions when he made his first donation in 1996, and founding member Gerard Koskovich wasted no time securing the donation. Koskovich flew to Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, New Mexico to look over Sarria's files and memorabilia, and returned with 21 boxes of treasures, including costumes from Sarria's 1950s performances at The Black Cat bar, records of the Imperial Court, and extensive personal correspondence.

Marjorie Bryer, the archivist processing Sarria's donation, was kind enough to speak with us about the recent acquisition.

Sarria is adding to a collection. What existed before the recent acquisition?

The records already in the archives span the years 1923 to 1968 and include materials related to Sarria's performances at the Black Cat Café and its legal battles, Sarria's run for San Francisco city supervisor in 1961, and documents related to the League for Civil Education (LCE). The Black Cat was famous -- or infamous -- as a bohemian hangout; Allen Ginsberg called it "the best gay bar in America." LCE was formed in 1961 and was probably the first U.S. organization to organize queers into a voting bloc. There are photographs of Sarria on picket lines and onstage, performing comic operas, and singing "God Save Us Nelly Queens"; there are costumes he wore at the Black Cat.

There is a small amount of material documenting the beginnings of the Imperial Court System, an international network of charitable organizations Sarria founded in 1965. Every year the court names an empress and emperor and puts on fabulous shows to raise funds for charity. Sarria was the self-proclaimed first empress of San Francisco: "Empress José I, The Widow Norton" a reference to Joshua Norton, the celebrated San Franciscan who proclaimed himself "Emperor of these United States" and protector of Mexico in 1859.

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What are the most notable additions to the archive?

The most significant addition to the collection is an extensive trove of records from individual courts throughout the country, Canada and Mexico. The additions also contain a significant amount of correspondence. These new papers date back to the 19th Century (family records and photographs) and go up through 2011.

How much of the collection has been processed?

The materials that came to us in the 1990s were arranged and described and have been used by researchers. The 2012 accretion is a very high priority; archivist Juliet Demeter has just started processing it and is integrating it into the extant collection and creating a comprehensive finding aid (guide) to Sarria's papers.

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How does this collection fit into the extant GLBT Historical Society archives?

José Sarria was a civil rights activist, a high-visibility performer and San Francisco personality, and a prodigious fundraiser. He was a pioneer in the gay rights movement -- both because he was the first openly gay person to run for elected office anywhere in the world and because he used his art to instill pride in queers and urge them to fight for their rights. Sarria ran for the Board of Supervisors at the height of the San Francisco Police Department's raids on gay bars --16 years before Harvey Milk's election. His papers document the emergence of an LGBT political electorate and gay identity in San Francisco. Because he was so involved in the community, Sarria's papers reflect changes that occurred over a 50-year period and document his influence on queer life in the city, across the country and even internationally.

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Does the archive serve a research purpose?

Sarria's papers will enable researchers -- scholars, filmmakers, and journalists -- and our museum curators to tell many amazing stories in a very vivid way. This collection is significant to anyone interested in LGBT, gender, and Latino history, as well as the histories of San Francisco, politics, performance art, and theater.

Sarria was short in stature at just under five-feet tall, but larger than life. We hope that someone will use the papers to write a long overdue biography of him -- or make a documentary film about the world he inhabited.

We are grateful to José for donating his papers to us so we can share his legacy with the public. In fact, the Historical Society's entire archival collection has been amassed through donations. We are immensely grateful to the donors and members who contribute to the growth and prosperity of the archives and museum.

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